Editorial Note: Many of the mot powerful and informative blog posts over the past three years have come in the form of guest posts from teachers, parents and public school advocates. If you have a commentary piece inside you that you’d like to write down and have posted, just drop me a note – [email protected]
Connecticut Education Association’s Lesser Evilism: Why endorsing Malloy is a losing strategy ( A Guest Post by Jay Poppa)
[For informational purposes only, Jay Poppa is the Vice President of the Bridgeport Education Association; this commentary piece is his own and not associated with his position in the BEA]
On Friday, September 26 the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) Board of Directors fell into the pit of lesser evilism by voting to endorse incumbent Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy for a second term.
CEA leadership ignored the recommendations of the CEA PAC, which was to not endorse any candidate running for Governor, a decision at least two of Connecticut’s largest teacher locals, affiliated Bridgeport (CEA) and unaffiliated Hartford (AFT), already made on their own.
The CEA is now committed to supporting the teacher attacking, pro-corporate education reformer Malloy. What’s more is that this decision highlights the failed strategies of the CEA in thinking that choosing a so-called “lesser evil” will help to protect teachers, students and schools from the greater evil represented by people like Republican candidate Tom Foley. However, Malloy is just as eager to carry out the education reform dictates pushed by the profit hungry corporate education reform industry, and has publicly stated so.
The CEA’s strategy of lesser evilism and their reluctance in calling out their Democratic Party political “friends” over the last few years has hampered the union’s ability to effectively fight for the schools we need. Supporting the Democrats is a political dead-end for any union. In this political climate only organizing a strong rank and file base with deep community ties will effectively combat corporate education reform and the general attack on the working class.
As the late historian Howard Zinn said, what matters most isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in. If social movements and workers aren’t in motion, making demands on politicians and struggling from below, mainstream politics will be shaped by the pressure from above, by the demands and priorities of the wealthy and the education reform industry they promote.
Over the past year the CEA leadership has made some positive efforts to be more responsive to their membership and move toward an organizing model of unionism. Unfortunately, endorsing Malloy will significantly undermine these efforts by eroding their leadership and the trust of their rank and file activist base and community allies. If the CEA is serious about its efforts to organize the teacher rank and file and their community allies they must retract their endorsement.
When looking at the CEA position it isn’t surprising to find their endorsement of Malloy falls in line with what many of the largest and strongest teacher unions in the country are doing.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) whose historic 2012 strike inspired and energized the US labor movement, voted to endorse Democratic Governor Pat Quinn whose running mate is former Chicago Public School superintendent Paul Vallas. Vallas has been the poster boy for the “shock doctrine” style, pro-charter school, school privatization schemes. He oversaw the wholesale privatization of the New Orleans Public Schools following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in which he turned almost all of the public schools over to charter school operators. He then went on to wreak havoc on the Philadelphia, Haiti and Bridgeport, CT (where he was forced out by a coalition made up of the community and the CEA/BEA) school systems.
Lesser evilism as a strategy has plagued the American labor movement for decades. It has played a part in the ineffective response to the employers offensive on American unions and living standards over the past four decades. It is a strategy that hasn’t helped to overcome union retreat and defeat and has created a steady decline in the unionization rate from a high 1950s high of 35% to 11.3% of the total work force.
One aspect of this employer’s offensive has been the desire to eradicate American unions. After decades of steady attacks by the employers the unionization rate in the private sector is about 6.7%.
Now both Republicans and Democrats have set their sights on destroying public sector unions who make up about 35.3% of this workforce. This attack has been a bipartisan effort aimed mainly at teachers, the largest section of organized labor, but this attack extends to all public sector workers.
The CEA Leadership Bungles SB24
In the winter and spring of 2012 Malloy proposed and helped to get passed his “education reform” bill SB24 that was written by the corporate education reform industry.
Connecticut teachers have been angry at Malloy’s verbal attack on their profession. Malloy’s most infamous quote from his address to the 2012 Connecticut House of Representatives, “Basically, the only thing you have to do is show up for four years (to earn tenure)” is widely remembered for its vitriolic character. Malloy’s willingness to engage in some of the most outwardly heinous aspects of the corporate reform movement such as teacher bashing were only outdone by his actions which have positioned him as one of the most aggressive pro-corporate education reform Governor’s in the country.
The CEA, then led by Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine and President Phil Apruzzese, responded to SB24 in a manner that could only be characterized as top down, bungling and inadequate.
Apruzzese and Levine initially agreed to some of the most hated aspects of SB24 such as the new teachers evaluation that aimed to tie teacher certification to evaluations based heavily on standardized test scores. Apruzzese and Levine unilaterally released their “View From the Classroom” which was the CEA plan for education reform that included some of worst provisions of SB24.
Instead of sharply and aggressively critiquing SB24 which was what was needed to match the support put together by the corporate education reform industry and Malloy, the CEA hugged the line between collaboration and mild criticism effectively making their critiques weaker at a time when they needed to be stronger and sharper.
Current CEA Leadership
The current CEA leadership, under President Sheila Cohen and Executive Director Mark Waxenberg, has stated their desire to and actually has taken some steps to change the course of the CEA to focus more on organizing teachers and community members against education reform. These steps, however, have been slow and often inadequate. In fact, outside of the Summer Leadership Conference organizing workshops and the Bridgeport fight to keep an elected school board, the CEA has publicly continued on the path of compromise.
On some provisions of SB24 the current CEA leadership has quietly accepted or has positioned themselves as good partners in Malloy’s education reform plan.
Even critical participation has been absent in the conversations over the Commissioner’s Network a “turn around,” competitive grant style school funding scheme. In fact the CEA and local affiliates have done little to organize or discuss with the public that these programs seek to lower our expectations as to what we will receive in terms of funding and resources from the state and they also seek to curtail the rights of union members. The CEA could highlight these issues, along with some of the real problems our schools and students face, such as how our schools are underfunded by the state, or that our “underperforming schools” are predominantly in poorer, working class neighborhoods, and neighborhoods of color.
Token Gestures and Defending the Real Evil
Now election season is nearing and Malloy is behind in the polls. He has offered teachers a few token gestures; getting rid of Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and alleviating some of the provisions of the new teacher evaluation plan. Unfortunately for teachers and students most of the damage has been done. Malloy’s SB24 locks in additional state funding for charter schools when our public schools aren’t even adequately funded. It still uses standardized test data to evaluate teacher performance, which will lead to more “teaching to the test.”
In the coming days and weeks we will hear CEA leadership justify their decision in many ways. They will argue that not endorsing Malloy would have been irresponsible because it would allow Foley to get elected or that our allies and fellow union members were counting on us to help keep Foley out. They will tell us that Foley wanted to bring right to work legislation to Connecticut or bring about a “Wisconsin moment” and that supporting Malloy was a “hard choice” for the CEA to make. We will hear that Malloy isn’t what we want but he’s the best we can get. CEA will advise that we hold our noses and vote for Malloy anyway.
While Foley’s “money follows the child” position on education is lunatical and his pension ideas are frightening, the truth is that there is no good choice between the two mainstream parties. However, supporting Malloy will only allow him to continue a rightward slide and attack on public education while saying to us, “Well, at least I’m not Foley.”
The reality is that the words and actions from the CEA leadership show a lack of understanding as to who the forces are behind the corporate education reform project.
Through the 2010 remarks of News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch we can see how the richest 1% of the American ruling class see public education.
“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching….”
They see it as a massive untapped market for private investment and profits.
The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too weak-willed to fight against the profit driven Murdoch and his ilk. As left-wing writer Doug Henwood clearly wrote about the nature of the Democrats:
“Another recurrent feature of the [“lesser evilism”] genre: a lament over the Democrats’ lack of spine, which is often treated as a curable condition. But in fact, the invertebrate status is a symptom of the party’s fundamental contradiction: it’s a party of business that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it’s not. Related to that, it’s getting harder to say what the party’s core beliefs are. Republicans have a coherent philosophy–loopy and often terrifying, yes, but coherent–which they use to fire up an impassioned base. The Democrats can’t risk getting their base too excited, lest it scare their funders.”
In fact among Malloy’s top two campaign donors are Jonathan Sackler and Mary Corson, his wife. Sackler is the director of Purdue Pharma and a major proponent of charter schools in Connecticut. Of course Sackler and Corson are going to want something for their money.
We have to remember that by supporting politicians like Malloy we are helping to push the Republican Right even further to the right. A position of “no endorsement” could have sent a message to both candidates that their politics are not supported. Instead the CEA’s message to the public and Malloy is, “there is no consequence for your attacks on us, keep it up.”
What’s more is that there is a genuine third-party candidate who is running and who has been a vocal opponent of corporate education reform. Jonathan Pelto, a progressive activist and pro-public education, pro-teacher blogger announced that he would be running for governor over the summer. Unfortunately, he didn’t get enough signatures to get his name on the ballot although he is still running as a write in candidate.
The truly hard choice for the CEA would have been the most sensible. They could have put their money and political support behind Pelto’s campaign. Even if he didn’t win it would have excited thousands of teachers, parents and community activists. It would have spread the message of why corporate education reform is a bad thing and how Malloy is an advocate of it. It would have helped to organize allies together and it could have set the CEA and pro-public education forces up to wage a stronger fight against whoever gets elected Governor.
The Democratic Party has been called “the graveyard of social movements” for a reason, because once you accept the idea that defeating the Republicans is the most important political strategy, it makes sense to prioritize that over everything else. The result is that movements don’t stand up when the attacks come from Democrats, as they already have and will continue to in the future.
Even those in the CEA leadership who understand the importance of organizing but still engage in lesser evilism will continue to postpone organizing efforts and claim that the unions aren’t strong enough yet to pursue a strategy that doesn’t include endorsing bad politicians. This position ultimately allows activists to kick the can down the road to some imaginary future in which we magically have the right level of organizational strength to put forward a real alternative. That magical future will never arrive if we don’t start organizing for it now and on a principled political basis.
When we support the lesser evil, even if we do so reluctantly, we make it harder to fight against the greater evil of education reform. Whoever gets elected will aim to gut the public education system and scapegoat teachers. The battle against this will need to be waged by the rank and file teachers, their allies. Unfortunately, we will be starting from a position in which our leadership just spent money and time defending Malloy, helping to put him back into the Governor’s seat.
If the CEA truly wants to wage the fight necessary to defeat the education reform industrial complex, they will need to rescind their endorsement and truly move completely into an organizing model of unionism. Any other gesture from the CEA will seem disingenuous and conciliatory. If the CEA leadership isn’t willing to change course on its own then it will be up to the hundreds of rank and file teachers that have more recently emerged inside the CEA to put forward the ideas, politics and strategies we need to win.
You can reach Jay Poppa at [email protected]